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Syria's President Assad dead at 69; parliament amends constitution on successor

anchor
A Syrian TV anchor cries as he delivers the news of Assad's death  

June 10, 2000
Web posted at: 12:58 p.m. EDT (1658 GMT)

DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- Syrian President Hafez Assad, the Middle East's longest-serving leader, is dead at age 69.

The official announcement came Saturday on Syrian television. "Today, death has taken away from Syria a leader," said the announcer, his voice shaking. "Today, Hafez al-Assad, the national champion who has withstood all pressure, is absent. He left us."

The news was announced to members of the Syrian parliament, who had assembled for their first day of session. Some broke down in tears, others erupted in cries of anguish. "The power of God, the will of God, is above any will," said a parliament member.

The members then stood in silent tribute to Assad. He is survived by three sons and a daughter.

Assad's son Bashar, a staff colonel and a physician, was being groomed to succeed his father. Saturday, the Syrian parliament voted to amend the constitution to allow a future leader of the country to be as young as 34, down from a prior requirement of 40 years. Bashar is only 38.

Further, the successor must be a member of the regional command for the ruling Baath party. Bashar is to be made a member of that ruling circle June 25, when Congress is scheduled to meet.

"It's really a setback," U.S. Ambassador to Syria Talcott Seelye said. "He could have delivered on a peace settlement without any problem."

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Members of the Syrian Parliament cry as they learn of Assad's death  

According to the constitution, one of Assad's two vice presidents will take power, said CNN's Rula Amin in Damascus.

But Syrian television announced Saturday that the parliament had formed a committee to amend the constitution to allow Bashar to succeed his father.

Assad had survived three decades of turbulence as a key player in the complex world of Middle Eastern politics.

Syrian dissidents called him a butcher, responsible for ordering thousands of their countrymen killed, which he denied.

His sway among other Arab leaders left him an influential world figure.

He had tried to get Israel to return the Golan Heights, a key area of land captured during the 1967 six-day war.

He was a member of the minority Alawi sect of Shia Islam, in a country where most people are Sunni Muslim but where Alawites traditionally dominate the military.

Assad was running the Syrian Air Force when Israel destroyed it during the 1967 six-day war.

In 1970, he took power after a bloodless coup by military moderates. He was elected president of the Syrian Arab Republic in a 1971 referendum.

Since then, he dominated Syrian life and politics, serving as a power broker over Middle-Eastern politics.

He was born October 6, 1930, less than a decade after modern Syria and Lebanon were carved from the Ottoman empire ruins.

Assad said the Syrians and the Lebanese were one people. While Lebanon struggled to maintain a separate identity, many of Lebanon's Christian leaders looked to him as the country's true authority.

That authority often came by force: thousands of Syrian troops in Lebanon.

In the early 1980s, Assad turned against the radical Palestinian movement. He used Syria's military power to drive out Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he regarded as a threat.

Some people have credited Assad for helping bring about the release of Westerners held hostage in Beirut, though his role has never been clear.

Assad formed coalitions with other nations, including Egypt and Libya. He and Egypt's Anwar Sadat joined forces in the 1973 war against Israel, which they lost.

Assad then broke with Sadat over the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and kept Egypt at arm's length until a reconciliation with Hosni Mubarak in 1990.

Assad backed his fellow Shia Muslims in Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq, whose leader, Saddam Hussein, represented the rival wing of the Arab socialist movement both leaders had joined as youngsters.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Assad sent Syrian troops to join the coalition of countries which would punish Iraq the following year.

That cooperation helped end a long estrangement between Syria and the United States, bringing the country political and monetary rewards as the Soviet Union's influence waned.

In 1982, Assad moved to crusha potential challenge to his authority at home from a conservative Moslem movement based in the city of Hama. Several thousand people may have died.

In 1983, he was reported seriously ill with heart trouble.



RELATED STORIES:
Syria-Israel peace failure raises Lebanon danger
March 27, 2000
Assad's hopes for legacy evident behind shakeup in Damascus
March 8, 2000
Syrian leader grooms son as successor
February 29, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Golan In The Words Of Mr. President Hafez Al-Assad - Syria
Cafe-Syria
President Hafez Al-Assad in Profile
National Information Center - Syria
Syrian Embassy
ArabNet -- Syria, Government


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